Advancing a Free Society

Council on Foreign Relations President Richard N. Haass, writing in the Washington Post Sunday on “Why Europe No Longer Matters,” asks an impertinent but pertinent question: “If NATO didn’t exist today, would anyone feel compelled to create it?” His answer is no.

He’s right in a narrow sense: A “North Atlantic” military alliance wouldn’t make a lot of sense as a startup these days. The specifically geographical component of the alliance has its origin in the Soviet threat. Whatever you think of Russia’s authoritarian drift, Moscow poses nothing like the danger it once did.

The more interesting question is whether the United States, the most powerful nation in the world, would want to be part of a broad-based collective-security institution with the defining feature of NATO’s Article V, which commits members to regard an attack on one as an attack on all. I think the answer there is yes.

There have been plenty of instances when the United States has found itself in a position of acting on its own, and this pattern will certainly continue. All the more reason, therefore, to act in consort with others when possible – whether through the United Nations, NATO, or a “coalition of the willing.” If the support from others has a material component to it, such as military capability or financial resources, so much the better. But even if the support others provide is “merely” political or diplomatic, it counts to the United States. It’s lonely at the top.

But why not a set of ad hoc coalitions instead of a formal institutional arrangement? For three reasons. The first is values-based. It is useful for the United States to associate closely with states that share a commitment to democratic government, regard for human and political rights, and market economies. NATO hasn’t always been so comprised, but it is now (though the direction of Turkey is an interesting question). A newly-created alliance would certainly consist of most all NATO members plus other countries with similar values: to name an uncontroversial few, Australia, Japan, South Korea.

Second, the institutional architecture – assuming it was along the lines of NATO’s – provides a forum for discussions of threats to collective security, which is how shared values become also shared interests. NATO is in Afghanistan because of such a discussion, and in Libya as well.

Third, a formal structure binds policymakers collectively to the course of action they have agreed to. The 1999 air campaign against Serbia to prevent humanitarian catastrophe in Kosovo, for example, did not end with the capitulation of Slobodan Milosevic as quickly as anyone had hoped or expected. The fact that the operation took place under NATO auspices certainly contributed to the resolve of political leaders (including U.S. leaders) to see it through to success.

These three features of an alliance structure provide real benefit to the United States. In the absence of NATO, a far-sighted statesman would indeed seek to create an institution to provide them.